Generations of the Nigerian and African Left – History and Historicity

Prof Biodun Jeyifo. Photos by Idowu Ogunleye

“Out of relative obscurity, every generation must discover its mission and either fulfill or betray it” – Frantz Fanon,

“This generation will not pass away before all these things take place”. – Jesus of Nazareth, Matthew 24/34


By Biodun Jeyifo


What we are doing today is a momentous event in the history of the Nigerian Left. Although it is the launching, not of a richly endowed foundation, not the opening of a magnificent physical edifice of the Left but a (mere) online website, it is still an occasion of great historical significance. This is because this online website will be a window on what will be the only SOCIALIST LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES on the African continent. As an online window, the website will open out to both an online library and archive that is accessible to the whole world and a physical library and archival documents and other materials on the ground in Calabar. The epochal nature of this project can be gauged by the fact that while we know of socialist booksellers, socialist book distributors, socialist publishers and even socialist institutions for the production and training of cadres, a socialist library and archive is a very uncommon thing. As a matter of fact, only in post-revolutionary societies do we find socialist libraries that double as depositories for archives. How did this come into being, what will it add to resources available to the Nigerian Left and what new relationships between the past, the present and the future will it entail – these are the issues that I hope to address in this talk. But first, a word or two on the ground on which I stand as I give the talk.

I speak today as the Chair of the Board of Advisers and of the Board of Trustees of SOLAR, not as “Professor Emeritus” as I was introduced. I speak also as a former President of ASUU, indeed the foundation president of ASUU. I speak also as a former member of the Central Working Committee (CWC) of the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) representing ASUU in that body. And I speak as a former member of the Socialist Forum Collective (SFC) of Ife that, for more than two decades, met unfailingly every week to dispassionately review what we had done right or wrong and where we were going. I also speak as one of a small band of revolutionaries that formed a commune at Ode-Omu whose purpose was ultimately to foment a mass uprising of peasants and workers in many parts of the country. Finally, I speak as a leftist newspaper columnist who wrote continuously for major mainstream Nigerian newspapers – Sketch, Guardian, The Nation – for more than half a century. I mention these facts and points of reference because it was within the contexts they provided that I met the outstanding leftist revolutionaries, activists and thinkers of my generation and the generation that came after mine. As will become evident in the course of my talk, this is the main backdrop of the talk. It is also the central experience of my life. I do not of course under-value the scholarly and professional work indicated in my emeritus professorship; indeed, I wish to place on the record here that I am immensely proud of all the younger scholars that I joined others to produce at Ibadan, Ife, Cornell and Harvard, nearly all of them very prominent academics and intellectuals in their own right. But as all of them know, the life I have had in the Nigerian Left has been at the center of my existence in the last half-century. And it is from this fount of invaluable experience that I draw the substance of this talk.

SOLAR’s online and on-the-ground library and archives both have their antecedents in two projects of Edwin and Bene Madunagu that are almost without duplication or comparison in the Nigerian Left: a socialist free public library that opened in 1995 and closed partially in 2018; and a passionate and dedicated archiving of the lives, struggles (and quarrels) of individuals and generations of Nigerian revolutionaries and activists from the colonial period to more or less the present period. Edwin Madunagu was/is of course not the only one in the Nigerian Left who kept an archive, but he was the most dedicated and what he colllected is numerically vastly superior to what anyone else collected. He was/is not like a collector of stamps or heritage coins; as the greatest historian and archivist of our generation, he collected documents and memorabilia on the lives and times and struggles of generations of the Nigerian Left assiduously. When it became widely known that he was “collecting”, many sought him out to donate to his ever-expanding trove. In one case – that of Pa Curtis Joseph – the tranche of papers and memorabilia that he gave to Eddie was more than a thousand pages! The free public library also has all the marks of an uncommon revolutionary project about it because, at precisely the time when government-funded public libraries were folding up in Nigeria, Eddie and Bene were running a free library in Calabar where working people and young people could come in, read newspapers, check out books, and for a small, token fee have photocopies of newspapers and documents made for them. Is there a connection between the free socialist public library and the vast archival collection of the Madunagus? Yes, there is and it is this: of all the comrades that I encountered in the Nigerian Left, none appreciated the significance of documentation and information as intellectual and cultural aspects of our struggles as did Comrade Eddie, especially with regard to relations between past and present generations of the Nigerian Left. I recall here the countless number of conversations between Eddie and myself that were sparked by some particular items in the archives, just as the free public library dedicated specifically to socialism made Calabar one of my favorite cities in Nigeria, quite apart from its own great political and historical significance in the making of Nigeria. It is these two currents, the free public library and Eddie’s vast archival collection, that are coming together in the creation of SOLAR.

Digitalization of the archives has started in earnest, thanks to assistance from one of our collaborators, IFRA. Meanwhile, thanks to another collaborator, GPI, the books, documents and other items of the archives have been moved into a building complex that is more commodious than the physical space they had occupied in the last three decades. Indeed, we have been given a parcel of land by a senior comrade and a member of the BOT. In the fullness of time, we shall erect the permanent home of SOLAR on this piece of land. Our hope is that it will be a testament to SOLAR’s vitality to the posterity of the Nigerian Left.

It is all very promising and exciting, the movement of part of the library to the GPI building complex and the digitalization of the lives and works of generations of the Nigerian Left. Some comrades whose lives and works are being digitalized have an abundance of written works by themselves or about them. Others do not have such rich written documentation. I think here of Comrade Tony Engurube, of cherished and imperishable memory. Fortunately, he is not forgotten and there is a surfeit of oral and written accounts and testimonies produced by other comrades about his life, his exceptional revolutionary passion and activism. Like all archival collections, in this one the dominance of written sources will be alleviated by recourse to oral materials.

The digitalized archives of SOLAR will be, first and foremost, about individuals. But ultimately, it is in generational cohorts or groupings that the archives will achieve their greatest impact. This is because as crucial as class, gender, race, nationality, ethnicity, locality and individuality are as vectors of social identity and struggles for justice and equality, generations are the wheels around which revolutionary outbreaks and social transformation turn. As Fanon famously said, “out of relative obscurity, every generation must discover its mission and either fulfill or betray it”. Generation is not destiny, but it is the greatest bearer of possibility when it comes to the need and the will for revolutionary change.

For starters, we began the digitalization process around and about three particular generational cohorts of the Nigerian Left. These are the 1940s-1960s generation; the 1970s—1990s; and the Post-SAP, Post-Neoliberalim generation. Here are some names – only a small, partial list – of each of these groups. The 40s-60s group: The Zikists; Labour Leader No 1; Dapo Fatogun; Eskor Toyo; Wahab Goodluck; Dr. Kolagbodi; Baba Omojola; Comrade Ola Oni; Chimere Ikoku; Dr. Tunji Otegbeye; Chinua Achebe; Wole Soyinka; Segun Osoba; Eno Edet Traore; Ken Saro-Wiwa; Fela Kuti; Alao Aka-Basorun and Mokwugo and Ifeoma Okoye. In Group 2: Gani Fawehinmi; Omafume Onoge; Bade Onimode; Seinde and Dunni Arigbede; Yusuf Bala Usman; Omotoye Olorode; Bene and Edwin Madunagu; Femi Osofisan; Dipo Fasina; Raufu Mustafa; Ntien Kungwai; Tar Ukoh; Jibo Ibrahim; Mahmud Tukur; Atahiru Jega; Festus Iyayi; Assisi Asobie; Niyi Osundare; Esiaba Irobi; Ayesha Imam; and G.G. Darah. Group 3: Femi Falana; Ngozi Iwere (née Ojidoh); Kunle Ajibade; Chido Onumah; Akin Adesokan; Uzor Maxim Uzoatu; Chima Ubani; Owei Lakemfa; Baba Aye; Austine Amanze Akpuda; Kayode Komolafe; Wumi Raji; Offiong Offiong Aqua; Mallam Femi Taiwo; Dapo Olorunyomi; Sola Olorunyomi, Tony Iyare and Biodun Ogunyemi. As these are only partial lists, we can see that in generations of the Nigerian Left we have an impressive numerical consolidation. As a matter of fact, it is also qualitatively impressive. This goes against the grain of the received “wisdom” about national formations of the Left on the African continent. By the light of this “wisdom”, countries like Sudan, South Africa, Tanzania, Egypt and Ghana have formations and generations of the Left that are deemed much bigger, stronger and accomplished national left formations than what historically obtained in Nigeria. One of the things that the digitalization project of SOLAR will hopefully accomplish is debunk this myth, this fallacy. For the fact is that though no politically strong or viable Communist or Socialist Party has emerged in Nigeria, and the control and guidance of labour unions by the “hard left” has never been anything close to what it has been in countries like South Africa, Nasser’s Egypt and Nimery’s Sudan, the Nigerian Left has penetrated deeper and wider into three domains of national, public affairs than any other national formation of the Left in Africa: curriculum and pedagogy in the tertiary educational sector; the penetration of Leftist writers, critics, artists and performers into the arts, theatre, popular music and street art of the country; and the ideological and political alliance of intellectual and manual labour signified, for instance, in ASU’s membership of the NLC. Though Babangida ejected ASUU from membership of the NLC, the links have remained intact. On this note, I come to the closing thoughts of this talk.

In the title of the talk, I mention two terms hinting that I am counterposing one to the other. The terms are “history” and “historicity”. By “history” I have in mind the connection between periods or generations across aeons of time, like a chain of being. In contrast, in “historicity” I have in mind the distinct and unique set of conditions or, more pertinently, contradictions that make each age, each generation like no other. On this account, “history” and “historicity” are respectively like the terms “syntagm” and “paradigm” in linguistics and/or semiotics. In the syntagm or syntagmatic structures, the syntax, the links between words, phrases or signs are so clearly established that they are regulative. In contrast, the paradigm or paradigmatic structures require absolutely no nearness or resemblance between the words, phrases or signs compared. What is the relevance of this excursus on “history” and “historicity” and “syntagm” and “paradigm” to the subject of this talk, SOLAR’s digitalization of the lives, works and struggles of generations of the Nigerian Left? Well, it seems to me that in our project, analog and digital technologies will combine to abolish the gap or divide between “history” and “historicity”, “syntagm” and “paradigm” so that both connected and unconnected comparisons can be made across the board. This seems rather like the words of the second epigraph to this talk attributed to Jesus the revolutionary Nazarene: “Before this generation shall pass away, these things will take place“. In this particular conception of “generation”, five or six bio-sociological generations are all members of one mega-generation, from new-born babies to the oldest “Methuselahs”. When it is completed, the digitalized archives of SOLAR will make available to us, instantly and simultaneously, archival materials on generations of the Nigerian Left as far apart as hundreds of years, the oldest materials going back to a time when our intellectual and ideological forebears did not refer to themselves as “Nigerians” but as “Africans”.

SOLAR’s ultramodern alchemy of post-analog digitality will not abolish the divides and gaps between and within generations of the Nigerian Left. At best it will make available to us the means of productively negotiating the most problematic divides, especially those that in the last six to eight decades have widened or deepened to chasms. I have two particular sets of such generational chasms in mind. One pertains to the unbridgeable chasm between, on the one hand, generations that continue to think of themselves as universalists and internationalists and, on the other hand, generations of leftists who are beginning to espouse ethno-nationalism and “restructurenista” irredentism. In some instances, this schism exists within the same generation. The second is the chasm between generations for whom anti-imperialism and anti-capitalism are fundamental points of departure and much younger generational cohorts for whom the effective ideological and strategic context for their struggles for justice and equality stops at our shorelines and land borders, barely extending to our contiguous neighbors like Cameroon, Niger and Benin Republic. Consistent with this stance, they completely subsume their anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism under a “patriotic”, nation-state polity in which the be-all and end-all of revolutionary or democratic subjectivity are captured by “governance”, “state capture”, “stomach infrastructure”,“insecurity” and “corruption”. Indeed, there are among the younger generations many for whom figures like Fanon, Nkrumah, Walter Rodney, Cabral and even Sankara evoke absolutely nothing, not even the shadow of mere name recognition! The shudder that this gives me is both literal and symbolic!

Does this make me sound like one of the “old Methuselahs” of Jesus’ conception of the mega-generation that contains a multiplicity of generations? I hope not! Like the entirety of the “generations” that listened to Christ’s sermon, all Nigerians, from the youngest to the oldest that are past the hundredth year mark, hope that “something” is coming that will deliver us all from the terrible suffering and darkness that envelope the land. Other than this “metaphysical” hope, SOLAR’s online digitalized archive of generations of the Nigerian Left will not pretend that all the multitudes, all the generations of the living and the departed speak with or in one voice. But neither will we project a cacophony, a Tower of Babel, a Day of Pentecost in which a riot of tongues locked the peoples – the generations – in the prison houses of their mutually incomprehensible languages and discourses. Ha, if only the universalists and internationalists could or would make common cause with the irredentist ethno-nationalists! But that is not the goal. When our online-accessible archives become available, a new renaissance will follow closely in its wake – studies, readers, anthologies, booklets, full-length books all derived from the great harvest of SOLAR’s digitalized archives will be published in waves and cycles. In this respect, SOLAR is not without antecedents and precursors in the distant and recent past of the Nigerian Left. But fundamentally, it is, or will be a synthesis of institutional bodies of the Nigerian Left that were half-formed or stuck in a limbo of neither viable nor unfeasible projects: “abiku” socialist bookshops that just barely managed to survive from one month, one year to the next; socialist book distributors who, in good conscience, never paid proceeds from books they sold to the comrades who wrote and published the books, converting the monies to their own use just to keep body and soul together; and socialist book publishers in varying degrees of precarious individual-cum-collective forms of proprietorship and authorship. SOLAR will surpass these relics of our past and present attempts at institution building and financial independence and self-reliance – but we will make haste slowly!

*Being the full text of remarks orally presented by Biodun Jeyifo at the formal launching of the website of the SOCIALIST LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES (SOLAR) on Friday, June 16, 2023)

*Biodun Jeyifo is Emeritus Professor of Comparative Litearure and African and African– American Studies, Harvard University, USA.